The age of the German lied, an art-song for solo voice with piano accompaniment, extends from the first songs of Schubert (1814) to the last songs of Hugo Wolf (1897). Its emergence in the early part of the 19th century was strongly influenced by literary Romanticism, and it is not a coincidence that lyric poems by Romantic literary giants such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) figure largely in the repertoire.
The emphasis in the Romantic movement on the psychology of the solitary individual, along with its admiration of folklore and its worshipful yearning for communion with Nature, seemed tailor-made for musical setting, with the solo singer as the archetypal Romantic hero. At the same time, the piano was undergoing major improvements which increased its range, its strength of tone, and its expressive potential, making it a miniature orchestra capable of providing a theatrical ‘backdrop’ behind the singer’s voice, or even of engaging with the singer in dramatic dialogue. It could thunder, it could whisper, it could echo the singer’s sentiments, making every song, in effect, a dramatic duet between singer and piano.
The elevation of song to the realm of high art paralleled the rise of bourgeois patronage in the arts, and so one further element in the lied’s success was the setting of its performance. In keeping with the celebration of home entertaining and cozy family life that characterized the Biedermeyer period in central Europe (1815-1848), the new temple of Art where this new art-form flourished was not the aristocratic palace, nor the public concert hall, but the domestic drawing room. And because the lied addressed its audience on terms of social intimacy, it often contains subtleties of expression that amply repay close listening.
Liederkreis Op. 24
After spending the 1830s concentrating exclusively on composing for the piano, Schumann finally burst into song in the year 1840, producing in this year alone more than 125 songs—over half his lifetime output. His penchant for composing epic cycles of piano music comprising a succession of evocative scenes rather than in a continuous narrative (Papillons, Carnaval, Kreisleriana) is evident in the way he structures his Liederkreis Op. 24 as a series of mood portraits, intended to be played as a unit. The songs are connected by a number of recurring musical motifs, but lack a central plot, per se. More song collection than song cycle, the Liederkreis presents us with a kind of musical ‘drone footage’ circling round a distraught young lover, depicting the suffering and anxieties that an amorous affliction is causing him.
Schumann had ample reason to sympathize with the protagonist of these songs as his own love life was beset with the same frustrations and uncertainties.
Having given up hope of obtaining parental permission to marry the 20-year old Clara Wieck, he had taken her father to court to settle the matter and the legal proceedings were ongoing as he wrote the Liederkreis. The lyric poems he was setting from Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder (1827) must have had an extraordinary resonance with him, speaking as they do of the anxieties and doubts that young love brings.
The composer’s self-confessed alter egos, the dreamer Eusebius and the passionate Florestan, are much in evidence in this collection, their contrasting psychological states being introduced in the first two songs, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage and Es treibt mich hin, es triebt mich her. The piano is a major supporting actor in this work, adding muscular resolve in the grimly determined Warte, warte wilder Schiffmann and a picturesque depiction of the Rhein river’s undulating waves in the placid Berg’ und Burgen schau’n herunter. Long postludes allow the piano to have the last word in many scenes, painting it as the more knowing and more emotionally balanced of the performing pair.
The penultimate song, Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen, is the most unusual of the collection. It is based on the Lutheran chorale melody Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten that expresses quiet faith in Providence.
Lieder to texts by Heinrich Heine
Brahms’ song writing has been criticized by some as too instrumental in conception to be effective as vocal music. He is more concerned, it is said, with the shape of his melodies and the complexities of his textures than with the need for speech-like rhythm and musical illustration of the text. And yet his melodic ideal was the simple folksong, and his textures respond vividly to the poetic images they support in music, no matter how motivically dense their musical structure may be.
An example of this ‘abstract but illustrative’ craft is given in Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze (How lovely to love in spring), which begins in the piano with a rippling image of waves, in imitation of the river beside which the song’s shepherdess is sitting. But this piano figuration is also a mirror image, in smaller note values, of the simple folklike melody that soon enters. At the mention of the wreaths (Kränze) that the shepherdess is weaving, the vocal melody gets interwoven with not one, but two countermelodies in the piano part. The arrival of the cantering horseman provokes a change to a triplet rhythmic pulse, but the shepherdess’ reaction to him blends both duple (her) rhythm with triple (his) in an ingenious use of texture to engage with the poetic text.
Details such as these abound in these songs. It would be correct to say, however, that Brahms gives the piano an important role in varying the texture of the vocal-instrumental duet. Indeed, in his moody and intense rendering of Heine’s Meerfahrt (Sea voyage) the piano holds forth for a full page of score before the voice first enters, and in many passages pulls the song along with its own momentum.
Instrumentally conceived as well are the two-against-three accompaniment patterns, common in Brahms’ piano music, that make these songs so richly textured. Most Brahmsian of all is the gentle lullaby mood that pervades the first two songs of Op. 85, Sommerabend (Summer evening) and Mondenschein (Moonlight), which share not only a common central melody, but a similarly delicate, intriguingly complex piano accompaniment.
Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It was Franz Schubert’s imaginative settings of Romantic poetry, with its everpresent nature imagery and fixation on the psychology of the lonely outsider, that elevated the German lied to the status of high art. With melodies that ranged in style from the tunefulness of folksong to the operatic intensity of whispered recitative, he combined a gift for vocal writing with the pianistic imagination of a theatrical scene painter to reveal a new expressive potential in the simple pairing of solo voice and piano. The poems of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe provided him with texts that stimulated his imagination to a fever pitch, as demonstrated in the selections on this afternoon’s program.
An den Mond (To the moon) is a song of adoration tinged with more than a hint of sadness, as intimated by the sigh motives in the piano introduction and in the vocal line throughout. The moon is a blessed giver of light in the darkness but a somewhat distant source of consolation for one afflicted with earthly troubles, as represented by the raging river in the song’s more turbulent middle section. By doubling the singer’s voice in the piano, Schubert adds a metallic timbre to the melody line, emblematic of the moon’s cool radiance and its impassive noninterference in human affairs.
Meeres Stille (Calm sea) is starkly minimalist, with every expressive dimension muted in sympathy with the idea of oceanic stillness that is the poem’s central image. The song unfolds in a hushed pianissimo, within a limited vocal range, at a slow, but steady and unvarying pace, the entire accompaniment a single rolling arpeggio at the beginning of each bar suggestive of a light ripple on the surface of the water. The eerie mood of this song is double-sided, its peaceful surface implying fearful depths below.
The theme of loneliness is explicitly explored in Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt (Who gives himself to loneliness). Advancing the curious conceit that you are never alone as long as you have your own loneliness to keep you company, it travels meditatively through this thought to its logical consequence: an acceptance of the relief that death will provide. This grim reality is reinforced by a passacaglia-type descending bass line with a distinctly Baroque feel.
Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß (Who never ate his bread with tears) continues the depiction of earthly existence as a vale of tears but its mood, while initially reserved, is hardly one of resignation. With a nobility of utterance reminiscent of Gluck, the singer challenges the justness of the ‘heavenly powers’ who leave men to suffer so much. Their shockingly stern reply is given by the piano in the final bars.
The wandering mendicant is the subject of An die Türen will ich schleichen (I’ll steal from door to door). The piano accompaniment of steady quarter notes is brilliantly multidimensional: both a pictorial representation of the beggar’s continual travels on foot, and an anthem-like hymn, troubled by constant chromatic alterations.
An Schwager Kronos (To coachman Chronos) is a bumpy but exhilarating coachride headlong into life, complete with all the stages of youthful exuberance, bracing maturity, and the thought of impending death defiantly faced, and even mocked. A constant pulse of triplet 8th notes keeps the coach-ride rhythmically vivid throughout while the declamatory style of the vocal line rises triumphantly above it.
Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The closing scene of the age of German lieder was played out by Hugo Wolf, a fervent Wagnerian and arch-enemy of Brahmsian conservatism. While he packaged his terse, intensely expressive poetic settings within the framework of the traditional lied, his boldly chromatic treatment of poetic texts provided a glimpse into developments to come in the 12-tone techniques of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and company. Wandering with unprecedented freedom from key to key, he followed the poetic text with feverish concentration, tracing its psychological tension with finely etched musical details. Music, he said, was like a vampire sucking the life’s blood out of poetry and in his own performances, he insisted on reciting the original poem to his audience before singing it. Although theoretically music takes a backseat to the poetic text in his works, there is undoubtedly a lot of back-seat driving going on in the way they develop. These songs all derive from his collection of Goethe-Lieder published in 1890, when he was at the height of his creative powers.
Der Rattenfänger (The rat-catcher) takes up the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but this rat-chaser is an equal-opportunity abuser of rats, young children and young women. The piano scampers mischievously, evoking both his magical powers and the line of bewitched subjects trailing behind him. The rapid patter of this shamelessly jolly braggart is riveting: Rossini’s Figaro meets Bad Cop.
A lover’s repeated act of bending down to pluck a flower ‘a thousand times’ is painted by the repeated bowing gestures of the piano in Blumengruß, a song less fraught with angst than most.
Gleich und Gleich (Like to like) is an ode to the symbiotic relationship between flower and bee. The piano’s cutesy introduction, with its high, tinkling imitation of the flower ‘bell’ and its sudden melodic drop (representing the bee’s plunging in to drink its fill) occurs throughout. A sexual subtext is not hard to find here. This is the birds and the bees talk for the horticulturally inclined.
The Phänomen (Phenomenon) offers hope to those well on in years that love still awaits, just on the other side of a rainbow colourfully painted in boldly chromatic tones.
Anakreon’s Grab (Anacreon’s grave) is an elegy to the memory of the ancient Greek poet of love and revelry. The garlands bedecking his grave are lovingly painted by gentle cascades of harmonic colour in the piano.
Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sie? (Has the Koran existed for all time?) marks a rare incursion on the part of German art music into the field of Islamic theology, if only in jest. The rhetorical question stridently posed in unison by voice and piano as the work opens finds a blasphemous answer more congenial to both as it ends: it is better to face God tipsy than sober.
The final trio of lieder expands, in ever more exuberant fashion, on the pleasures of drink. Trinken müssen wir alle sein! (We must all be drunk!) is a rousing drinking song with the swinging arms of flagon-holding pub patrons vividly imitated by the rocking rhythms of the piano accompaniment. The march-like fervour of So lang man nüchtern ist (As long as we are sober) has an ironic cabaret-like feel, while Sie haben wegen der Trunkenkeit (They accuse me of drunkenness) mournfully expands the definition of inebriation to include the effects of love and poetry, with the implicit moral at the end: it’s all good. All hell breaks loose in the final song, Was in der Schenke waren heute (What a commotion at the inn), a raucous evocation of an alcohol-fuelled pub fight with a manically pulsating piano ostinato to rival Schubert’s Erlkönig.
Donald G. Gíslason